by Frank BeckMallika Voraessay on Alain-Fournier

A True Paradise

by Frank BeckMallika Voraessay on Alain-Fournier
A True Paradise

The Lost Domain: Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier, translated by Peter Davison, with an introduction by Hermione Lee. Oxford University Press, 2013, 208 pp., $19.95

Poems by Alain-Fournier, with English translations by Anthony Costello, Anthony Howell, and Anita Marsh. Carcanet Press, 2016, 92 pp., £9.99/$13.00

Les plus belles lettres d’amour d’Alain-Fournier edited by Jean-Pierre Guéno. Passeur Éditeur, 2016, 176 pp., €11.90 


       Les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus.
    (The true paradises are the paradises one has lost.) 

     Marcel Proust, Le temps retrouvé (Time Regained)


On the first of June 1905, Paris was recovering from the previous day’s bombing, an attempt to assassinate President Émile Loubet and the visiting Spanish king, Alfonso XIII. Both had escaped unharmed, but 22 people had been injured and one of the horses in the official entourage killed. Today, however—Ascension Day—was a calm day of dazzling sunshine, the sort of weather when men pulled down the brims of their hats and women strategically adjusted their parasols.

On the Right Bank, the annual display of new paintings was underway at the Grand Palais. Admission was half-price on weekdays, and, on this Thursday afternoon, Henri Fournier was enjoying the exhibition. An 18-year-old boarding school student on a tight budget, he was an unusual young man, keenly interested in modern art: the highlight of his past year had been seeing a performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Fournier might have expected to stay until the hall closed for the day, but at tea-time—a little after four o’clock—he left the galleries and began to descend the stairway outside, when someone caught his eye. Three years later, in a letter to his friend René Bichet, included in this new collection of his letters by Jean-Pierre Guéno, Fournier described that moment as though it had just happened: 

Suddenly I saw in front of me, also descending, a tall young girl, blond, elegant, slender. I cannot convey the impression of extraordinary beauty that I got from her, except by this image: a branch of white lilacs . . . She was going down the steps slowly, with an elderly lady leaning on her arm. She had such a charming outfit on that, at first, she seemed eccentric to me. I told myself: this must be an actress. When I reached her level, she raised her head a little: a face of indescribable nobility . . . and she gave me a look so ingenuous that I stopped in place. [1]

Regaining his composure, Fournier followed the two women at some distance. When they boarded the ferry at Pont Alexandre III, he did too. Having crossed to the Gare d’Orsay, he kept them in sight until they reached a building at the corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue du Cardinal Lemoine. By then, Fournier had pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket and scribbled, “My destiny, my destiny.” He was correct, but not in the sense he hoped.

For the next ten days, he kept returning to that street, eager to get another glimpse of the young woman. Once she smiled at him from a window. Finally, he followed her to and from church, and they had a brief conversation. She gave him her name—Yvonne de Quiévrecort—but explained that she was only visiting Paris on a brief holiday with her aunt. She was engaged to a young doctor. Reaching her hotel, she said, “We must part. We are two children, and we have acted foolishly.”

Fournier, however, remained obsessed with Yvonne—a fixation that was one of the driving forces behind the novel he wrote from 1910 to 1913. Not that he stopped pursuing her: a few years later he hired a detective to find her family and befriended her sister. By that time, the interest seems to have been mutual, although Yvonne was now the mother of two children. Her sister set up a meeting in 1912, in an effort to provide closure, and, although the two continued to write to each other, it seems to have worked.

Fournier was then in the midst of writing Le Grand Meaulnes, one of the most beloved works of 20th-century fiction. (The title, the nickname of one of the main characters, is pronounced like “moan.”)  Several years ago, when Lire magazine in France asked 2,000 of its readers from various backgrounds (“de tous horizons sociaux”) to name their favorite book, Fournier’s novel came in seventh, between The Red and the Black and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.There were film adaptations in 1967 and 2006. The book has many avid readers in German-speaking Europe, too, where six new translations have appeared since 2010. 

Carcanet’s bilingual collection of 14 poems that Fournier wrote (mostly between 1903 and 1906, with 1 or 2 as late as 1909) gives us a window into the novelist’s developing sensibility, and, like his letters, the poems contain language that later found its way into Le Grand Meaulnes, as Jean-Pierre Guéno documents. If not for the novel, however, the poems, unpublished during Fournier’s lifetime, would never have seen the light of day. (Six did not appear in print until 2011.) Both Fournier’s fiction and his poems sprang from his desire, expressed in a letter to his parents a few months before his encounters with Yvonne de Quiévrecort, “to write books and books for you about everything one saw and felt in that little corner of the earth that was our whole world.” [2]

The son of two village school teachers, Henri Alban Fournier was born on October 3, 1886 in La Chapelle d’Angillon, about 25 miles north of Bourges, in central France. He studied at a series of boarding schools in Bourges, Brest, and Paris and began writing at the age of 17, inspired by the Symbolist poetry of Henri de Régnier. When his first prose piece appeared four years later, he signed it “Henri Alain-Fournier” to avoid confusion with the name of a famous race car driver. After completing two years of military service in 1908-09, Fournier worked in the capital as an editor at Paris-Journal and as a private tutor (one of the students who came for lessons at his home at 2 rue Cassini was an American graduate student named Tom Eliot). [3]

On its publication in 1913, Le Grand Meaulnes was quickly recognized as an important book and was nominated for that year’s Prix Goncourt, the nation’s top literary award. Writing in the Mercure de France, the critic Rachilde (the pen name of Marguerite Eymery) said, “Here is the most delicious and most well told story, which can be read with the heart as well as the eyes and which thrills our imagination as much as our breast.”

Fournier was working on another novel, Columbe Blanchet, and on a play, La Maison dans la forêt, when war broke out in August 1914. He immediately enlisted and was killed in battle on September 22. Miracles, a collection of his prose and poetry, appeared in 1924. Numerous collections of his letters have appeared since, drawing on his extensive correspondence, much of it with his sister Isabelle and his brother-in-law, critic and editor Jacques Rivière. (The most complete Fournier biography in English is Robert Gibson’s The End of Youth: The Life and Work of Alain-Fournier.)

The story of Le Grand Meaulnes is told by Francois Seurel, 15 years old when the novel begins. He lives in a remote provincial town attending the school his father runs. One day a new boy named Augustin Meaulnes joins the class. Slightly older than the other students, taller and a bit wild, he quickly becomes their hero, and their admiration reaches new heights when he disappears for three days and nights and refuses to explain where he’s been. He has stumbled on an abandoned chateau, deep in the woods, that is filled with children gathered for the wedding of Frantz de Galais, the son of an aristocratic family in decline, and a woman identified only as Valentine. Apparently mistaken for an expected guest, Augustin has a fleeting encounter with Frantz’s beautiful sister, Yvonne, before the wedding is suddenly called off, and he is left to return to school.

The rest of the book flows from this chance meeting. With Francois’s help, Augustin searches for Yvonne and eventually finds and marries her. But he then flees without knowing she is pregnant, leaving Francois to help her through her pregnancy. As for the concluding chapters, no summary can do justice to Francois’s account, and in any case, readers should experience them for themselves.

The book’s elegiac message, however, is clear from the opening sentences; here they are, in Frank Davison’s 1959 translation, by far the best in English:

He appeared at our house on a Sunday in November 189 . . . I still say “our” house though it is ours no longer; nearly fifteen years have passed since we left the neighborhood, and we shall not be going back to it.

Once the intricately plotted story begins to unfold, it is vibrantly alive. Augustin Meaulnes’s physical prowess and daring is matched by the extraordinary forthrightness and powers of articulation of Yvonne de Galais. When she explains why she would like to be a village school teacher, the narrator marvels:

The easy way in which she could pick up a delicate subject and put into words subtleties that one usually finds only in books made the three of us feel awkward and tongue-tied, and there was a moment of silence before the talk was resumed. “But most of all, I would teach those boys to be sensible. I’d impress upon them a kind of wisdom I do know something about. I wouldn’t fill their heads with a desire to go roaming about the world, as you will probably do, Monsieur Seurel, once you’re an instructor. I’d teach them how to find the happiness which, if they only knew it, is within easy reach . . .”

Yet, other novels have an elegiac dimension, and many are vividly alive. Sophie Basch, editor of the Librairie Générale Française edition, has identified one thing that sets Le Grand Meaulnes apart: it is a profoundly hybrid work—a poetic novel, but also a dramatic one. [4] Romantically inclined readers respond to the four different love relationships (Francois/Augustin, Augustin/Yvonne, Francois/Yvonne and Frantz/Valentine), while those who delight in adventure enjoy the footloose exploits of Augustin and Frantz, who continually disappear and reappear. It’s a book that somehow manages to celebrate both bonding and rebelling.

There is also the broad canvas across which Fournier tells his story. While many novels about youthful characters are confined to a single school or neighborhood, Le Grand Meaulnes begins with a closely observed depiction of a child’s world but eventually reaches into the scenes of wild revelry in the lost château and to the back streets of Paris—where Augustin tries to find Yvonne. As in Peter Pan, there’s tension between the prosaic world at home and a magical place of frolicking children, yet in Fournier’s case the château is a hidden part of the landscape, not something separate from it. All of this is told with striking imagery: as Adam Gopnik has said, “Once read, Le Grand Meaulnes is forever after seen.” [5]

 If readers in the English-speaking world have largely neglected Fournier’s novel, writers and critics have not. F. Scott Fitzgerald likely derived his title, The Great Gatsbyfrom Le Grand Meaulnesand the novels are similar in their theme of obsessive love and their use of a narrator enthralled by an older, charismatic hero. [6]  John Fowles called Fournier’s book “the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature.” Indeed, Le Grand Meaulnes is the prototype of the adolescent novel in English as well, with books such as A Separate Peace and The Secret History owing much to Fournier. [7] In an afterward for the Oxford edition of Davison’s translation that was published during the centenary of Fournier’s birth in 1986, Fowles wrote:

What Fournier pinned down is the one truly acute perception of the young, which is the awareness of loss as a function of passing time. It is at that age that we first know we shall never do everything we dream, that tears are in the nature of things. It is above all when we first grasp the black paradox at the heart of the human condition: that the satisfaction of the desire is also the death of the desire. We may rationalize or anesthetize this tragic insight as we grow older; we may understand it better; but we never feel it so sharply and directly. [8]

Anyone who has read his novel will be curious about Fournier’s poems, and, fortunately, Carcanet offers them in a bilingual edition. Anthony Costello and Anita Marsh worked on the eight poems in Miracles, Anthony Howell worked on an additional six, and then Costello and Howell collaborated on the whole, using Marsh’s notebooks. “From Summer to Summer” (À travers les étés) was written in London the month after Fournier’s first encounter with Yvonne:

            It is you, it is you who have come to me,
            This afternoon which lies
            Baking in its avenues,
            Come with a white parasol
            And with a look of surprise,
            Quite solemn as well
            And a little bent over,
            As in my childhood
            You might be, beneath a white parasol.

            And of course you’re surprised that,
            Without planning to have come
            Or intending to be blond,
            You have suddenly found yourself
            Here in my path,
            And as suddenly you have brought
            The freshness of your hands,
            While bringing in your hair all the summers of the earth.

As gracefully as the lines read in English, they lose some of the immediacy of the leaner and brisker French. For example, “une après-midi chaude dans les avenues” (“one afternoon hot in the avenues) becomes “This afternoon which lies/Baking in its avenues” and “avec un air étonné, sérieux” (“with a surprised look, serious”) becomes “And with a look of surprise,/Quite solemn as well”. 

More successful, and perhaps the most revealing poem in the collection, is “Tale of Sun and The Road” (Conte du soleil et de le route), which describes a young boy (the “one little boy who resembles me”) who stands on the fringes of a dusty village wedding party, half-hopeful, half-fearful that he’ll be asked to sit next to a pretty girl he admires. The translation replicates the flexible prosody, alternating between two- and three-line stanzas, but wisely refrains from trying to duplicate the delicately-deployed French rhymes.

The poem whose mood most closely echoes that of the novel is “The Early Mists of September” (Premières brumes de septembre), a description of summer holiday makers packing up for their return to the city. Fournier’s poem has an epigraph from Jules Laforgue: “Believe me, it’s over for sure, until next year,” and both Laforgue and Fournier might have been pleased by the way The translators have reworked the original vers libre into a most Laforgue-like final stanza:

            We’ve seen such lovely summers!
           But don’t you think this evening
           We should seal the château doors?
           It’s time to get going, get back,
           Enveloped in our overcoats,
           Down chestnut-guarded roads
           Rapidly shedding as we freeze
           In our ass-drawn carts and barouches
           Loaded with worries and little despairs,
           Our holidays over. It’s back to our cares.

One question remains: why have so few U.S. readers read, or even heard of, a novel that Rudiger Safranski, one of today’s leading German critics, calls “the most beautiful book I know”? [9] The answer may be that most readers here do not read much fiction from Continental Europe in general. In May 2018, PBS published the results of a survey to find America’s 100 favorite books. The list contained just two French novels—The Count of Monte Cristo and The Little Prince—and only two German ones—Siddhartha and The Book Thief.  If Alain-Fournier suffers from neglect, however, he appears to be in good company, sharing his local obscurity with the likes of Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Mann, Boris Pasternak, and José Saramago. [10]

English speakers who want to discover Le Grand Meaulnes now have the advantage of Peter Davison’s superb translation in a handsome, new edition, issued for the centenary of Fournier’s death. For those with some French, there are numerous editions to choose from, including several audiobook versions. (I like the understated but engrossing performance by Mathurin Voltz from Éditions Thélème.)

Whatever language they read Fournier in, young people will be astonished to learn that a young French journalist from a century ago knew many of their hearts’ secrets. Older readers may find themselves wondering whether one lifetime is enough to sort out the enduring intensities of adolescence. 



[1] Les plus belles lettres d’amour d’Alain-Fournier, ebook location 155. Translations are mine, unless otherwise noted.

[2] Quoted by Hermione Lee in her introduction to The Lost Domain: Le Grand Meaulnes, p. xi.

[3] Robert Crawford. Young Tom Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), p. 150.

[4] Alain-Fournier. Le Grand Meaulnes, ed. Basch, (Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 2008), p. 21.

[5] Henri Alain-Fournier. The Lost Estate, trans. Robin Buss (London: Penguin Classics, 2007), p. x.

[6] John Dugdale, “Alain-Fournier, The Great Gatsby and a party in Chiswick,” The Guardian, September 22, 2014.

[7] The Lost Estate, p. xiv.

[8] Quoted in Robert Gibson. The End of Youth: The Life and Work of Alain-Fournier (Exeter, UK: Impress Books, 2005), ebook location 8732.

[9] Der Spiegel, March 2, 2008, p. 160.

[10] The Great American Read,